Twelve Kashmiri villagers shot dead ahead of talks
Suspected militants shot dead at least 12 villagers, including four children, in their sleep in Indian Kashmir Saturday, a day ahead of talks between India and Pakistan over the disputed Himalayan region.
The attack, one of the biggest to target civilians in the troubled region in recent months, took place near a remote hilly village in Poonch district, about 250 km (160 miles) north of Jammu, winter capital of Indian Kashmir, police said.
"They descended on the village around 1:30 a.m. (2000 GMT), barged into a house and fired indiscriminately on sleeping villagers," a police officer told Reuters by telephone from Poonch.
P.L. Gupta, inspector general of police for the Jammu region, said the dead included four children aged three, four, eight and 13 and a 17-year-old girl. Ten people were also wounded in the attack, four of them critically, he added.
"The seven men killed were all members of the local village defense committee," Gupta said, referring to groups of villagers who are armed and trained by Indian security forces to guard remote hamlets from militant attacks.
The dead were all Muslims, police added. No militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Another senior police officer suspected that the attack might have been triggered by a recent campaign on state-run TV which showed women in Kashmiri villages joining village defense committees and taking up arms alongside their menfolk.
"The attack took place in the same area shown on TV," the officer told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "This was probably to teach the villagers a lesson and scare them away."
The killings took place hours before Pakistani Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar was due in the Indian capital for talks beginning Sunday to tackle the Kashmir dispute, at the core of half a century of hostility between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
The two-day talks between Khokhar and his Indian counterpart Shashank, who uses only one name, will be the first to focus on Kashmir since a failed summit between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and then Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in mid 2001.
The Kashmir dispute triggered two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since independence from Britain in 1947.
It nearly sparked another war in 2002 after suspected Kashmiri militants attacked the Indian parliament. New Delhi said the mlitants were armed and trained by Islamabad.
In the past, militants fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir have tried to derail Indo-Pakistan peace talks or divert the focus of high-profile foreign dignitaries visiting New Delhi by staging major attacks in the disputed state.
New Delhi has repeatedly said it would not allow such attacks to stop its quest for peace on the subcontinent.
Both countries are hoping to build on peace efforts begun by Vajpayee, which include a cease-fire on the Kashmir frontier, resumption of cross-border road links and a pledge to maintain a freeze on nuclear testing.
Authorities say more than 40,000 people have been killed in the insurgency since it began in late 1989. Separatists put the toll at more than 90,000.
Officials say separatist violence has steadily dropped in the region since the peace process began. But more than half a dozen people still die each day in shootouts and explosions.